COLUMN ONE : A Reason for Making the Grade : An alumnus told students in a neglected Kansas City school to stick it out and he'd pay for college. It's no miracle, but it cleared some stones from a rugged path.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The story of Westport High School is a story of civic indifference, educational decline, a generation of lost kids and a self-made millionaire who tried to make a difference. As yet, the story has no ending and no moral, but the class that will graduate in June does offer a reminder: In the inner city, small gains may be possible, but miracles are hard to come by.

For many years, Westport was the best high school in Kansas City. Built at the turn of the century on a hill overlooking then-fashionable Hyde Park, it was the anchor of an all-white neighborhood that lived behind wrought-iron fences and sent its sons off to the finest universities. By 1929, Westport boasted of having more Rhodes scholars among its alumni than any high school in the country.

Tough economic times struck both the high school and the neighborhood in the 1960s. Middle-class whites started leaving for suburbia in Kansas, just across State Line Road, and poor blacks, then Latinos and Asians, arrived to take their place.

As Hyde Park and other communities throughout Kansas City were transformed, white civic leaders redrew school boundaries almost monthly, sometimes a block at a time, to make sure that minorities moving into an area were assigned to schools already predominantly black.

This old cattle town had, in effect, written off its inner-city schools. After 1969, the last year the education system had more whites than blacks, voters turned down 19 consecutive school levies and bond measures, hastening the decline of the schools. At Westport, the dropout rate reached 50%. Achievement scores in reading and science fell to the lowest levels in the district. Crime and drug use soared.

Then, one day in April, 1988, a balding, slight man named Ewing Marion Kauffman returned to the high school he had graduated from 54 years earlier.

One of the Westport students, Arnold King, remembers asking himself, who is this guy who seems so old and fragile? "But you know," King recalled, "when he got up to talk, he suddenly seemed like a young man. He was very commanding, very forceful."

Kauffman, born on a farm and raised by his divorced mother who took in boarders to support the family, had formed his own drug company in 1950, packaging vitamins in the basement of his mother's rented home on 68th Street by night and selling them by day. Marion Laboratories had made him one of the wealthiest men in Kansas City, although the handful of old-time families who ran the city had never really taken Kauffman into their fraternity, considering his philanthropic concern for the underclass nice but a bit misdirected.

The faces that looked up at Kauffman from that assembly hall in 1988 were 87% black, brown or yellow. The world, he told them, steps aside for any person with an education, and to prove his point he made them an extraordinary offer: If they graduated on time, showed discipline, remained drug-free and didn't get pregnant, he would pay for their college education under a program he was setting up called Project Choice. It was an offer he would later extend to all 865 students at Westport High School.

"Project Choice's taken a load off my shoulders and taught me no one can stop me but myself," said Westport senior Prentice Johnston, 17, who applied to and has been accepted by four colleges. Despite the distractions of gunfire in his neighborhood at night and street corners filled with drug dealers, Johnston has made steadily better grades and his mother, Ida, calls Project Choice "a dream come true."

"I thank Mr. Kauffman in my prayers every night," she says.

For Johnston and his senior classmates--the class that Kauffman addressed four years ago--this is reckoning time. Can opportunity alone release students from the bonds of failure and turn around a dysfunctional school? Administrators say probably not. Project Choice, they believe, resulted in gains, but not miracles. Providing an opportunity, they found, is just the first step in healing the scars of sociological and economic neglect.

"You'd think all the kids would jump at this chance, but that isn't happening," said Charlotte Carr, Westport's principal. "As a group, their aspirations aren't very high, and a lot don't believe they can really go to college, even with the opportunity they've got. Education was forgotten in Kansas City for 20 years, and that legacy can't be undone overnight."

On any given day, one of three Westport students skips school. Thirty-five percent of the students are failing two or more subjects. Thirty girls have become pregnant. Proficiency test scores, although improving, remain below the district and national average in reading comprehension, math and science. Four security guards are kept on duty at Westport, and violence, outside of and unrelated to school, has claimed the lives of two students from the class of '92.

"It's really hard to just come to school and get an education," said David Wilburn, 14. "First, you have to earn respect; you have to fight back or you get messed with. Second, you find out skipping school's easier than going to school. Things are different than when our parents were kids. We've got a lot more pressures, and parents don't understand that."

But even without the miracles, Project Choice has brought remarkable change to Westport and convinced administrators that they are on the right track. Random drug testing of students--which Kauffman and Kansas City Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver also took at the school to demonstrate their support--has shown the teen-agers to be 99% drug-free. Of Kansas City's 10 high schools, Westport now has the third-lowest "crime index."

The dropout rate has been cut in half, and twice as many students as usual are expected to graduate this year. Perhaps 20% will go on to college. The most important point, educators say, is that because someone cared, more kids are completing high school.

"I think there were some misconceptions about the program from the start," said Project Choice's director, Thomas Rhone, a former Kansas City high school principal. "What this is is a dropout prevention program. . . . Mr. K's philosophy is that it's cheaper to right the system now than to pay the cost of our failures later."

Mr. K, as everyone calls Kauffman, is 75 and spends his time overseeing a foundation that bears his name and finances Project Choice. He doesn't dish out funds for the arts, refuses to attach his name to buildings (rejecting suggestions that the city's baseball park be named Kauffman Stadium, although he owns the Kansas City Royals, the American League team that plays there), and won't spend a dime for bricks and mortar. "I'd rather put my money in people," he says.

In many ways, Project Choice was born in Kauffman's own roots. As a youngster, he was too poor to own a bicycle--"and now that I'm rich enough to afford a hundred bikes, I'm too old to ride one"--and left college after two years to support his mother. He often read a book a day, having taught himself to speed-read during a childhood illness, and was so successful in his first job as a salesman for a drug company that he earned more money than the president. When his boss cut his commissions and trimmed his territory, he went into business for himself in his mother's basement, after persuading seven friends to invest $1,000 each. Fifteen years later their investment was worth $750,000.

Before merging his company with Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in 1989, Kauffman ran Marion Laboratories like an extension of his family. Workers were referred to as associates, not employees, and every associate, from the janitor up, shared in annual bonuses and stock options. Three hundred of them became millionaires. Kauffman regularly surprised workers with hospital visits when they were sick and with phone calls to their homes to extend anniversary or birthday greetings.

"I've always had the conviction that if you (as a businessman) treat people like you'd like to be treated, one, you'll be happy; two, it's the best way to live your life; and three, you'll make more money," he said.

Project Choice is not a new concept. New York businessman Eugene Lang "adopted" a sixth-grade class in East Harlem in 1981 with an offer of free college educations, and as of last July, 33 of the 61 students to whom he had extended the opportunity had entered college. His "I Have a Dream" program has spread. Today about 40 cities, including Los Angeles, have foundations that rely on private donations to assist 10,000 disadvantaged students across the nation. Lang's and Kauffman's programs both offer wide-ranging non-financial support, from counseling to tutoring, during students' pre-college schooling.

Kauffman admits that Project Choice has had shortcomings. Parental involvement at Westport has been inadequate, he thinks, and he suspects that making high school students strive for their free college education through some sort of system of credits might be more effective than offering it to them up front. His staff also is studying the possibility of getting charter status for Westport so that the school can become an independent entity run by the Kauffman Foundation, not the school board.

As things now stand, Westport has a meager athletic budget of $2,000. Some parents grumble that their children do not have English textbooks and the school can order supplies only twice a year. And while the students themselves complain that they need more positive role models, only seven of the 75 teachers at Westport are black men.

"Earning $1,400 a week as a drug dealer doesn't sound so bad," said one student.

Many of the problems at Westport appear to be the result of earlier attitudes of school district officials. Missouri was the nation's northernmost state to require separate schools for blacks and whites by state constitutional mandate. As recently as 1968, attorney Arthur Benson recalled, the Kansas City School District transferred the physics teacher from a predominantly black school to one that was still all-white. He was replaced by a teacher who taught principles of sanitation, a vocational course for black janitors. "The message of inferiority was made explicit," Benson said.

Benson brought a lawsuit that in 1985 led to a decision calling for the radical restructuring of Kansas City's schools. In the suit, filed on behalf of black and white schoolchildren, U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark ruled that Missouri and Kansas City had to tear down their "literally rotted" schools and construct the best facilities possible to eliminate the vestiges of segregation. The estimated cost of Clark's decision, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1990, was $1.2 billion.

The purpose of the plan is to create superior schools that white parents will send their children to by choice, thus re-establishing a racial balance in the classroom that will be reflective of Kansas City itself. (The city is 67% white; the schools are 75% minority.) It is too early to assess the results of Clark's edict, administrators say, but the white flight from inner-city schools at least appears to have been stopped.

Jermine Alberty, 16, president of Westport's student council and the oldest of seven children, had always intended to be the first in his family to get a college education. "But what Project Choice has done is let me set my goals higher than I could afford--a better university, a better career," he said. Alberty has given up the idea of practicing law and now looks toward a career in education, because he says he wants to give something back to the community.

"This is a tough generation to grow up in," he said. "You can't even watch a movie on TV without hearing cuss words and seeing someone shoot someone. Even the cartoons have violence. There's drug language all over TV. And now there's cable and you get 40 channels of this stuff.

"My mother tries to get me not to watch TV. I'm at an age, though, when I don't want to listen. I think I know more than my mother knows. We're all like that. But my generation hasn't been lost yet. We could still win. Maybe what it boils down to, what Project Choice is all about, is that even if you can't change everyone, you can change the ones who want to change."

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